The sound of hooves on the flagstones of Adeeva Pramath’s farm brought her sharply awake. The centaur rose to her hooves, her gentle fingers soothing her two colts at her side as they stirred. The centaur mare extricated herself from the stall and stepped out into the warm spring night.
“Husband?” she said softly.
Ramdas met her in the moonlight, his eyes downcast, shoulders slumped and head bowed as if bearing a heavy weight.
“Husband, what’s wrong?” she asked, taking his hands in hers.
Soot stained his tabard, but for smeared spots down the front, too large to be tear-stains. She brushed the soot of his anger off of his coat, then stepped in to embrace him. He was silent, quivering, grief and shame writ large across his eyes.
It was only after the second time she hugged him, pressing her forehead to his, sharing and matching his breathing, that he could find the words he’d never wanted to say.
“One of my men died today.”
Adeeva sucked in a sharp breath. “Oh, my love.” She glanced back over her shoulder at the silent, dark house, and nudged him with her fore-shoulder away from the front door, and onto the grass of their yard. “Hold me close. Tell me. You’ve already been to the family?”
Ramdas nodded, tightly, his arm trembling from the strain of pulling her so tightly to his side. He followed her lead away from the house, following the path that ran alongside a creek-bed bordering the property.
“I was,” he said, voice tight. “They spat on me. Called me no better than a savage zentauro, that he would still be alive if I were of decent stock. His wife, she screamed, Adeeva. She screamed as if I had stabbed her. He has four children.”
His wife bit her lip and wiped tears from her lashes. “They had no right to spit on you!” she said, wind rustling the grass around their feet as her anger caught the air.
“They had every right, Adeeva. Every right. He died in my command.”
She whirled on him, and grabbed him hard by his chin and jaw, pulling his face down to stare him hard in the eye. “Ai! He died. Did you do your duty, husband?”
“It doesn’t matter, Adeeva! He died in my command!”
“Did he die because you lapsed in your duty, husband? Did he die because you chose to do less than you could have?”
“No! No, Adeeva, I would never-“
“You would never!” She released his chin, stepped in once more, and cupped her hand to his cheek tenderly, eyes flashing in both concern and pride. “You would never, Ramdas Sachetan Pramath,” she said, her voice softening. “And that is why I love you, and your men follow you. You would never. You fight for them. Even the ones who spit on you, and call you a savage zentauro. Did you speak unkindly to them, the ones who spat?”
“No,” Ramdas said, looking away. “I thought-“
“Leave what you thought for confession, husband. I know what you thought. And you knew the thoughts to be unworthy, so you did not act on those thoughts, did you?”
Ramdas drew himself up, and swallowed. “No, Adeeva. I did not act on those thoughts. I did not strike them, or curse them, or set fires in my anger. I bore their grief. I took their spittle and I left.”
“That’s all you can do, husband. Bear it. Bear this.” Her hand encircled his, and she tugged him onwards, further away from the home. “Come with me. Breathe fire into the night, until it is gone from your heart.”
Ramdas followed her, but shook his head. “I’m not angry, Adeeva. There’s only sorrow. He was a father. He died badly, though he fought to the end.”
She leaned against his side as they walked, taking comfort in his warmth and solid weight against her side. “And all you could think about was your children,” she said.
He nodded, eyes squinting against tears.
“That is all I think about, Ramdas. Every day you are away, husband, all I think about is you and them. And how much our lives would be different if we had had parents. Like our children will.”
“You know I cannot resign, Adeeva.”
She gave his side a gentle slap. “I know. I knew when I married you I would have to share you with the world, aita zentauro. I knew I would have to share you with duty, and with children, and with politics and tragedy. They’ll never let their eyes off of us, Ramdas. We’re zentauro. So all we can do is be worthy of their eyes. We must shine, si?”
“I don’t feel much like I’m shining tonight,” he said.
“You are,” she replied, glancing up at him. “You came home to me, safe. How many lives did you save today?”
“Some,” he said, staring down at the grass.
She slipped a finger under his chin, pointing his head up at the starry night sky. “Then you’re shining, husband. And I’m sorry you’re hurting. After that nightmare in Frostmoor, what matters most is you came home alive. You came home to me again.”
He grimaced, and wrapped both his arms around her shoulders. “Her husband did not, tonight.”
“And we will pray for them, and for their grief, and for their children,” Adeeva said gently. “Even though they spat at you and cursed at you. I would have screamed no different, Ramdas. I will scream no different, if one day you do not come home to me. Remember that. Stay alive. Your children need you, and so do I.”
He nodded, burying his nose into her black hair, another hitching shudder passing through him.
“You can’t tell me about it, can you? That damned jacket won’t let you.”
“I cannot,” he whispered. “I would, mi amor, if I could.”
Her fingers laced around his, and she held her husband as he wept for the dead.
Helga stared at the bottom of her mug, the last dregs of imperial stout clinging stubbornly to the bottom. The reliquary was Persephone’s haven, but it made no allowance for a dining table, so they sat on the floor with supper plates spread out between them.
Persephone’s hood lay around her neck, her scar-torn face and mis-set eyes and lips all but invisible to Helga, these days. Persephone watched her over her bowl of soup, eyebrows raised.
“You’re sulking,” Persephone said softly.
“Nae, dearie, leave off. I’m not,” Helga lied, cheeks coloring.
But Persephone knew her too well for the weak lie to pass, and she set her bowl of soup down. “Yes, you are.”
Helga frowned over her sandwich of pumpernickel and ham. “Oi, Perry. There’s a difference between being disappointed in myself, and pouting.”
Persephone exhaled, a long, kindly plume of cool breeze taking the edge off of the night’s warmth. “I’m not sure there is with you. You’ve been quiet the whole ride home. Now you’ve hardly said five words all evening. Is this because you missed your throw?”
The dwarf looked away, and frustration creased her brow. “It was embarrassing, Perry. In front of all those good Knights. And then I had to wade across that damned water there and back just to fetch it. I felt like a first-month squire.”
“So you missed,” Persephone said, laying a hand on her lover’s hand. “You didn’t miss again.”
“I shouldn’t have missed at all,” Helga said, balling up her other hand into a fist, and pounding it on her knee. “You and the Captain never miss.”
“Ramdas does so miss,” sighed Persephone. “And I’m weaving the air in my magic most of the time, so it’s not as if missing is hardly possible, most days. You don’t have to make it into something special.”
“That’s just it, Perry! I’m not special. And I don’t want to be special. But it makes me feel like a right mudbones some days.”
Persephone spat a little chip of ice onto the floor. “You are not a mudbones. And I think you’re special.”
Helga held up a hand. “Like you told me, this isn’t about how others feel about me, Perry. I’m fine with being average. We got through tough scrapes with me being average, being ordinary. But I look at the skills of our teams, or our enemies… and I don’t feel average anymore. I feel downright mediocre.”
Persephone scooted over on the floor, and leaned against Helga’s side. “Well you’re not,” she said softly. “I spend every day distraught and fearful. Inside I feel like a big ball of wires, each one of them fears. And you’re the only thing that makes all my fears go smooth. Still there. Still heavy inside me, but the wires don’t prick. They don’t sting. And I can just do, when you’re there.”
Helga swallowed, and knuckled a corner of her eye. “But there’s more than me and you, Perry love. There’s Ramdas, and dear Adeeva, and their boys. I feel like the weakest pick on the mining line. That’s all. And I worry that it will get someone killed, one day. If they had someone better. Someone who misses less.”
“There is more than you and me, Helga,” Persephone replied, wrapping an arm around Helga’s waist. “You don’t see it, because, well, maybe it’s a weird thing to just say to someone, especially in the Knights. But people like you, love. A day at your side is a good day. And you don’t see it, because to you it’s just normal. Ramdas is half unbearable on a bad day, when he’s not had you near. And he knows it!”
Helga grunted. “Well it’s not as if he takes it out on me, much. He’s just short-fused. Keeps it away from me, mostly.”
Persephone pressed her head gently against Helga’s. “He says you have a knack for saying the right things for people. And he’s right. He might be good with the speech-and-preach types, but you’re good with people every day.
“And if I’m your hero, Helga, then you’re my bedrock. You’re the only reason I can plant my feet when I have to. When I’m scared all the time, or when I’m feeling ugly and loathsome and sad. You bear it, you bear me, and when I’m not in awful places in my own head I wonder how you can. But then I see you do it for anyone.”
The dwarf shook her head. “Anyone could do that too, Perry.”
“Maybe, but most don’t. And you do. You help people find their feet. You did it for Weathers, Saints rest his soul. Pramath, every day. Blackthorne, back then, in those bad days. You’d make her smile, or at least smooth her out. Me. Everyone I’ve ever seen under your command, they just work smooth, with you. Everyone wants to work with you, Helga. And that is special.”
Helga said nothing for a few heartbeats, but then leaned amicably into Persephone’s side. “I should work on my throws more, though,” she said.
“You should,” agreed Persephone, brushing a kiss on Helga’s head. “I can’t stand hearing your boots squish.”
Helga barked a small laugh, and tilted her head up for another kiss. “That’s the only free shot you get tonight, love,” she muttered, but her lips couldn’t shed her newfound smile.
Persephone’s lips lingered on hers, and then the taller woman straightened and gently pushed Helga away. “Enough of that! Finish your supper. I’ve still got work tonight.”
“This late?” Helga said, eyebrows climbing. “We both still smell of the road.”
“I came back to orders already in my desk,” Persephone said. She paused, and gave a habitual check of the privacy wards of the room, before continuing. “Orders straight from Greyson. I’m to issue Ramdas the violin.”
Helga recoiled, and grimaced. “That ghastly thing? Oi, dearie, if Blackthorne shows up, don’t you dare let her know that exists, or let her see Ramdas with it.”
“Never!” Persephone said, hastily shaking her head. “No, it’s proscribed. Cleared only for Scrimshaw Spider and that level of undead. Greyson wants it issued.”
Helga folded her arms. “If you’re going to take that thing out of its case today, I’m leaving. I won’t sour my stomach looking at it, dearie.”
“I’m waiting until after supper to do that,” Persephone pointed out. “So eat. Do you think Ramdas can handle it?”
“From what you’ve told me about it?” Helga said, frowning. “Aye. He’s a father now. I think he can handle it.”
“He’ll have to,” Persephone said, turning to stare at the locked and warded door to the reliquary vault. “It’s not going to give him much choice.”
At the sixth peal of the Cathedral’s bell-tower, a polite knock sounded at the door of Heather’s rooms. Heather took a deep breath, one hand rising to squeeze the locket around her throat. “Come in, Roland.”
He stepped in and shut the door. “Almost suppertime. Care for company again?”
Heather let herself smile. “Yeah, I don’t really like eating alone.”
“I don’t either,” he confided. “I avoid it at every opportunity. I’ll open a bottle of wine for us. How was your day?”
Heather drew a long breath. Make this time count, she reminded herself. Saying it threatened the fragile emotional equilibrium she’d found with Neela, earlier, but she gathered her courage, and answered.
“It was a real mixed bag of a day, Roland. Greyson met me for breakfast today. Made it clear I’m not to be rushed. I’m guessing you three have a history?”
Roland frowned as he twisted a corkscrew into a bottle fished from the cabinet. “We do. It’s contentious, but I suppose it comes down to the difference between opponents and enemies. What he does is important, and meaningful. I think it’s fair to say that Neela and I are often in disagreement with him on method, but never in goal.”
Heather squinted. “Care to be more specific?”
Roland favored her with a contrite glance. “The less I know about the hard facts of his work, Heather, the better I can do my job. I know he wants to save lives. And that is the purpose of the knights. It’s the Circle’s job to care about what comes next.”
He poured the wine, and passed her a glass, then joined her on the couch. “And how did it go after breakfast?”
“I went for a long walk. Ended up in the gardens. Neela found me crying there,” Heather said, sheepishly.
“A good cry or a bad cry?”
Heather blinked at the question. I can’t remember the last time I thought of any cry as a good cry, she thought.
“I… think it was a good cry, after a while. It felt like exhaling, after you’ve held your breath for too long.”
He touched his wine glass to hers, and gave her a look of approval. “That’s an excellent way of looking at it.”
She sipped her wine, and replayed the rest of her day in her mind: “Then I planted a sunflower seed in the garden for Anthony, and then came up here to pray and cry for a while, and just remember him. And Stephen.”
“Well,” Roland said softly. “I’ll try not to make you cry anymore tonight. We have to breathe in too, right?”
Heather cracked a tremulous smile. “Thanks, Roland. I’d appreciate that. Heart’s kind of feeling a little worn.”
Another gentle knock came at her door, and Roland touched Heather’s shoulder as he rose to answer the door. “I’ll get that. Supper’s served.”
He returned wheeling a cart bearing a large covered dish, revealing a large, savory meat pie and mashed potatoes, vegetables and more wine. Heather inhaled, taking in the scents of pork, mutton, rosemary, and onion.
“Oh, that smells good, Roland. I haven’t had a Tourvoise pie in almost a year.”
Roland took up the task of setting out the plates and cutlery on the low coffee table. Heather took up one of the knives and portioned out the food onto both plates, the task familiar and comfortable. Transferring her plate to her lap, she settled back as Roland poured the wine.
“I trusted the kitchen’s judgment on this supper,” Roland said. “It’s not fancy, but, sometimes simple is best, isn’t it?”
Heather croaked a laugh as she nudged aside the crust, taking up a forkful of the thick pot pie, the meat within stewed in a rich wine gravy. “Don’t know that I’d call this simple. But yeah. Yeah, it’s good. Better than I’ve had since leaving Bastia. Better than I can cook it, too.”
Roland’s chuckled over his plate. “Me too. I’m not much of a hand in the kitchen. Growing up in the cathedrals as a Circle boy means I know more about flirting for my supper than cooking it.”
Approaching more comfortable ground, Heather felt the tension in her shoulders easing. “Well, I’ve always liked cooking, myself, since I was knee-high to the ground. Ma and I had to feed the whole ranch, all six cattlemen and twelve more when the drive was on. She wouldn’t let me near the stove until I could see over the pots, but I was always happy in a kitchen, cooking for people I care about.”
More memories drifted to the surface of her mind, and her gaze dropped to her fork.
“Go on,” Roland said, his eyebrows rising in gentle encouragement.
Heather drew a long breath. “I liked cooking for Stephen. And he liked cooking for me. He’d complain, in a good way, if I cooked too often. Said if I kept stuffing him, he’d turn into one of those fat old waddlers in the city Guard who couldn’t chase down a crook. But it never stopped him from eating everything I put down, and asking for seconds.”
Unbidden, an old memory of her husband surfaced in her mind. Stephen, leaning back into his chair at our dinner table. He’d always pat his belly, so Anthony would mimic him, and then he’d give me that same smile that first made me want to marry him.
The longing that rose in the pit of her belly made her hand tremble, as she quickly picked up her wineglass, pressing it to her lips.
“So, yeah,” she murmured over the rim, when she’d had a swallow and could trust her voice again. “I like to cook. It’s nice, having something nice and simple in this world, something I can make sense of.”
“It is,” Roland said, his eyes scrutinizing her. “The world doesn’t always stay simple and understandable. And it can feel so unfair, when the world just up and decides to stop making sense.” He set down his fork, then made a gesture as if tossing papers into the air.
Heather shook her head, picking at some grilled squash. “But it doesn’t matter, does it?” she asked, her voice quiet. “To the world, I mean. It’s going to keep on going, and it doesn’t matter if you can handle it or not.”
“Well, I think it matters,” Roland replied. “I know I can’t control what the world cares about. But I can control what I choose to do about the things I care about.”
Heather didn’t have an answer for that, and the two finished their plates in thoughtful silence.
Roland delicately wiped his mouth, and folded his napkin. “When you’re ready to work again, Heather, you’ll be going to Venicia. I think you’ll like it there. It’s a warm country, full of passionate, faithful people, who don’t like to back down. Sounds to me like a good fit.”
Despite herself, Heather snorted and hid a smile. “If Ramdas is as bad as it gets down there for temper, I’ll survive,” she replied. She leaned back onto the couch and settled her fork onto her plate. “Venicia. Huh. Never been there before, not even on a visit.”
She swallowed, feeling a dry click at the back of her throat, the thought of Venicia bringing back memories of old talks with Stephen. “We talked about going, Stephen and I,” she said, closing her eyes and concentrating on keeping her throat from closing up around the words.
“Oh?” Roland said.
“Yeah. A vacation some day, a trip. Leaving Tony with his grandma, taking a week out in the countryside. Maybe come back with a sister for him brewing, you know? Talked about it a lot. Did a lot of dreaming, like you do when you’re in love.”
“It is a beautiful country,” Roland said. “Passionate people there. A culture full of romance, if you’re looking for it. Pious. And best of all? No winter!”
It was impossible for Heather not to laugh a little, at the pleasant idea a winter without snow after years in the tundra. “It does sound nice,” she said. “But, um… what’s going to happen in the meantime?”
“That really depends,” Roland said, reaching out to squeeze Heather’s hand. “What are you hoping to get out of this?”
At that, Heather shook her head. “I really don’t know,” she said, shifting on the couch, staring down at his hand on hers. “I’d like to stop hurting. But I’m pretty sure that’s not a week’s work, or two. So, I don’t know.” Frowning, she slid her other hand around the locket at her chest. “I do miss the fire in the belly, though. When I’m not fighting something, I spend most of my time feeling numb. Too tired to care, too tired to do more than what needs doing. Just… tired. And my grief keeps sneaking up on me. Every time I start to feel happy about something, it’s there to remind me.”
Roland looked her in the eyes. “One thing I know about grieving,” he said, “the pain doesn’t ever go away, not really. It ebbs. It fades. It’s like clinging to a boat in a storm, and there’s this ocean of grief underneath you, and the waves are so big and they come so quick you can barely survive them. You can’t even catch your breath. And after a while those waves still keep coming, but sometimes not as big. Sometimes bigger. But they get further apart. Eventually they get far enough apart you can see them coming, brace yourself. Dive into them, and through them, instead of being crushed by them. Come out the other side, and earn a breath.
“Over time, the big hurt fades, but the ache stays. After a long while, that’s all there is. An old, familiar ache. An ache you live with, and get used to.” He gave a small, sad laugh. “And you know, sometimes you even miss that ache, if it’s not hurting right that moment. And I know, right now, things are aching hard for you. So…” He tilted his head, his eyes and voice quietly earnest. “Maybe it’s time to rest, for awhile. I think that’ll do you very well.”
Heather tried to smile in answer, but she was too close to another bout of tears. For a moment, she just let her head drop, trying to summon enough control to ask the only question that came to mind. “But… what do I do?”
“Whatever comes to mind,” Roland replied. “So long as you stay away from Investigations, you’ve most of the Cathedral and city open and waiting for you. Also,” he said, leaning back and catching her eye. “There’s something you could think about doing, for yourself.”
“What’s that?” Heather said, suddenly wary.
“You could write to your mother, and tell her you’re here.”
Wariness gave way to an icy ball of dread, and Heather shifted away on the couch. “Roland, I haven’t written her since Stephen and Anthony died. She sent all sorts of letters. I just… I couldn’t. I couldn’t open the door when she’d come trying to visit. I’d just hide. Curl up and cry. If she came in, if I had to face her, to talk with her about it, it would have been real, you know? And it would have her grief too.”
“And you’d have drowned in it,” Roland offered.
“Yes,” Heather said. “Trying to pretend it wasn’t real, some days, that’s all that kept me alive.”
Roland raised placating hands. “I’m not saying I’ll be standing over you with a meterstick and a frown,” he said. “But if you don’t have to heal alone, Heather, you really shouldn’t. And maybe it’s too much to face her, just yet. But I think it’d still do her good to know her daughter’s still holding on. And for you, to be able to tell someone who loves you.”
He let her mull that over in silence. Ever since the Longeau, she thought, I’d try and write her. Every time, I couldn’t get more than a sentence or two in, and just throw it away.
But Ma never knew that, did she? For all she knew, her girl got booted North and just disappeared. And if she’s heard about the horrors that happened up in Frostmoor, for all I know she might not even know I survived.
She might think I’m dead, too.
“Yeah,” Heather said finally, around a long sigh. “Okay, you have a point. I’ll do it tonight, before bed, and that’s a promise.”
Roland squeezed her shoulder. “Do what you feel is best for your heart, Heather. And when you’re ready, and you need something to cheer you up, I have a stack of letters from everyone I talked to for those pictures. A lot of people really do care about you, Heather, and they want to know how you’re doing.” His smile fell slightly, sadness showing in his eyes. “So I think it’d be nice to wait awhile, before you tell them.”
“Yeah,” Heather agreed, frowning. “Probably be best. Don’t think they’d really want to know how bad I’m doing, right now.”
“So with that in mind,” Roland said, rising from the couch, “I think I’m going to let you to it. If there’s anything you need from either of us, don’t hesitate to knock on one of our doors, no matter the hour.”
Heather stood up, hesitated, and then stepped in and briefly hugged Roland. “Thank you, Roland.”
His arms enfolded her gently, and his hug was kind and calm. “You’re welcome. You’re worth this, too.”
And with that, he stepped away, and wheeled the cart out through the door, leaving Heather to settle back into the couch, and toy with the empty wineglass. She stared at the half-full bottle of wine Roland had left for her.
Saints, she thought, what am I going to say to Ma? It’s been four years, how do I even start a letter like that?
Letting her head fall back, she let loose a long sigh, and then peeked at the writing desk that sat under one of the tall windows.
Never you mind, Heather, she chided herself. With a heave, she pushed herself off the couch, picking up the bottle and glass, and walking to the desk. You promised you’d write. Keep your promises.
The paper was fine, almost as soft as linen, and the inkwell enchanted to stay upright to avoid accidental spills. She picked up the fine glass pen and set to writing.
Dear Ma —
Sorry it’s taken me so long to write…
If you’d like to spread the word about From Winter’s Ashes, vote for us on TopWebFiction.com, or better yet, write a review at WebFictionGuide.com, Goodreads, or Amazon. Or visit our Facebook page and share it with your friends!
Click here to read From Spring’s Storms, Chapter 9! (Note that this link is password protected until 12/31/2016. The password is available to our Patreon supporters and email list subscribers!)